Mission Creep on the Original “Lost in Space”

Having already done a post on Jonathan Harris, we thought it only equitable that we should publish our Lost in Space post on the birthday of Guy Williams (Armando Joseph Catalano, 1924-1989), who was the ostensible star of the show in the first place.

Now that Lost in Space has been rebooted, and not for the first time, the basic framework of the show may require but little explanation even among young people, but I bet some of the background is unknown even to fans of the original show. The concept was adapted from the Gold Key comic book Space Family Robinson, which launched (ha! I said “launched!) in 1962. The comic of course was a play on the concept of Swiss Family Robinson, only now instead of a 19th century family being marooned on an island, the story is set in the future (1997!), with a family being lost in distant galaxies. (Boy, were they optimistic about technological advances back then) Producer Irwin Allen clearly loved everything about this premise: not only did he produce Lost in Space (1965-68) but he later produced a Swiss Family Robinson series in 1975.

Almost everybody in the cast of Lost in Space came with past associations. Guy Williams had played the title character in the tv series Zorro. On Lost in Space he was Professor John Robinson, the mission commander and patriarch of the wandering clan. His wife Maureen was played by June Lockhart, who came from a famous theatrical family, and had previously played the mom on Lassie. Jonathan Harris, the villainous Dr. Smith, was known from The Third Man and The Bill Dana Show. Mark Goddard, as the hot-headed Major Don West, had been on the Robert Taylor series The Detectives (1959-62). Marta Kristen (Judy Robinson) had been in the teen film Beach Blanket Bingo. Angela Cartwright (Penny), had been on The Danny Thomas Show and in the movie The Sound of Music. Billy Mumy (Will Robinson) was a highly recognizable child star, whose most memorable pre-Lost in Space performance was in a Twilight Zone episode where he has the power to make people who irritate him disappear at will. The B9 Robot didn’t have previous credits, but his look-alike relative “Robby” did, appearing in Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Invisible Boy (1957). Both were designed by Robert Kinoshita. The voice of the Robot (“Danger! Danger! Alert! Alert! Danger, Will Robinson! Does not compute!”) was provided by announcer Dick Tufeld.

The first season of the series, shot in black and white, was straight ahead science fiction, not unlike a lot of outer space movies from the 1950s. But Harris rapidly expanded his part into a cowardly, awful comic buffoon, replete with alliterative, neo-Shakespearean put-downs and he rapidly became the star of the series, usually forming a sort of trio with Mumy and the Robot. And so the show became essentially a campy comedy series. Some have pinned this strictly on Harris, whose ham instinct was to hog all the limelight. But the show was also competing against Batman, so the writers and producers opted to go head-to-head in campy outrageousness, more a parody of sci-fi than the thing itself. Just as Batman had colorful, funny, costumed supervillains each week, the Robinsons began to encounter humorous if bizarre alien threats played by the likes of Wally Cox, Hans Conried, Al Lewis, Fritz Feld and Arte Johnson. Thus it became a sort of Black Mass of science fiction shows, often paired with Star Trek as its opposite. Star Trek was for serious science fiction fans. Whereas Lost in Space was merely “foolish”. (Though in reality its fantasy-oriented approach is not unlike certain stretches of Dr. Who, which gets plenty of respect).

“Goddamn it, I’ll KILL ya, Harris! I mean Smith!”

The tilt towards Smith-oriented plots particularly enraged Williams and Goddard, whose roles began to shrink, though they endured it. They were on a hit show, after all. With this offscreen backstory in mind, it amuses me now to watch those scenes where their characters are irritated at Smith and want to throttle him. Very little acting required, I should think! And speaking of small roles, I wonder what Lockhart really thought of hers, which seemed to consist primarily of bringing trays of sandwiches to the rest of the cast?

Despite the fact that, for many of us, the comical Dr. Smith IS Lost in Space, both the 1998 film version and the 2018 TV reboot have sought to go the serious route, getting back to the original concept. Moreover, in the new version it is MAUREEN Robinson who is mission commander, and the villainous stowaway is also a female. Since they are played by Molly Parker and Parker Posey respectively, you can be certain I will be checking the new show out!

As for the original one, it was abruptly cancelled after the third season, seemingly due to high production costs. That set may look cheap to us now, but back then it was most expensive one on television.